Professor Gabriel Arboleda, associate professor and chair of the architectural studies program at Amherst College, presented a lecture about his research on the complexities at the core of balancing sustainability and morality in urban design on Wednesday, Nov. 18 at the Mandel Center for the Humanities. Against the popular notion of sustainable development, Arboleda argued as to why urban designers should reconsider its implementation. As an architectural theorist and consultant, he works with people living in poverty in Latin America and the Caribbean. “Architecture is most beautiful when it hybridizes with other disciplines,” Arboleda said. His book, “Sustainability and Privilege: A Critique of Social Design Practice,” was recently published by the University of Virginia Press.

Arboleda’s research analyzes sustainable development through the lens of Medellin, Colombia, where the municipal government dedicates resources to environmental design as a catalyst for social development. Addressing poverty through architectural design is also known as “social urbanism.” In his presentation, Arboleda shared many pictures of visually striking and innovative infrastructure built at the core of impoverished barrios, or neighborhoods, in the city.

Santo Domingo, one of the poorest barrios in the city, is home to Biblioteca de España, a huge, boulder-esque library that contrasts the simpler structures surrounding it. The city also has an innovative transportation system known as MetroCable, a public gondola that can “fly over slums,” Arboleda said. The transportation initiative is known as “urban acupuncture” because of how artistic needles that are roughly connected by the cables create iconic architectural focal points in highly visible areas of the city. MetroCable also generally releases low emissions, thus creating an environmentally sustainable fissure of urban design. Moreover, the city has built new parks, gardens, green roofs, an artificial tree, and a green belt that contains natural preserves, bike paths, and other public amenities. Because of their innovative sustainable development, Medellin has earned several international awards, including the Harvard University Green Prize for Urban Design.

Unfortunately, Medellin’s urban innovation has come at a great socio-economic loss for residents of Santo Domingo, Arboleda explained. When the library was first constructed in 2006, some locals started hunger strikes to protest. Although the architects claim that only five houses had been demolished to construct the library, the truth is that 118 houses had to be destroyed to make room for the massive park next to the library. A total of 600 residents were displaced in the process of construction. While the city government did compensate residents whose houses were destroyed, they severely low-balled property values and paid residents one-fifth of the market price. Residents had no choice but to take the money or face eviction due to eminent domain, a government’s ability to seize private property.

After the library officially opened in 2007, construction problems started becoming apparent. In 2015, Biblioteca de España had to close due to technological risks caused by water leaking through the joints. One resident likened the rain pouring through the leaks to a “biblical flood.” The library is currently being rebuilt, and the budgeted cost of reconstruction is $7.8 million USD — a price significantly higher than the original construction cost.

Arboleda stressed how community participation is central to urban sustainability projects. Although Santo Domingo locals were consulted about trivial details such as computers, books, and wall colors, they were not included in decisive conversations. “Anodyne participation” — when community members are invited to participate on relatively minor matters when key aspects have already been decided — is a common technique used to manipulate participation in the community design process.

Santo Domingo’s community cares more about housing, unemployment, income, and access to healthcare. In this neighborhood and similar ones in Medellin, the housing situation is dire due to overcrowding in low-income areas.  As one of the most densely populated areas in the city, Santo Domingo commonly hosts six to ten people per house, with some not even having access to toilets or clean water.

The ultimate result of urban development in Medellin is “green gentrification,” Arboleda said. New infrastructure attracted new businesses, which led to increased rent and indirectly displaced even more residents. Although the city creates the impression that the new infrastructure has economically revitalized the neighborhood, funding comes from external sources, so any profit goes back to those external sources.

According to Arboleda, the whole sustainable development project is targeted towards preventing the expansion of slums by restricting the construction of more low-income housing in the area. In Medellin, poor residents will be contained within Santo Domingo as those who live near the green belt will find property too expensive and be forced to move. He described the phenomenon as “territorial encroachment and control exercised by the city government” that creates a “source of anxiety among low-income, hillside residents.”

In Chapter Two of his book, Arboleda writes, “Architectural projects end up subjecting populations in poverty to all forms of abuse, including impositions, economic burden, displacement, expropriation, technological experimentation, and even risk people’s lives since experimental green buildings sometimes collapse.”

Arboleda concluded his lecture with a potential solution to counterproductive urban development projects — social designers should forget about sustainability for now and first focus on addressing poverty. Acknowledging how radical his proposition sounds, Arboleda said, “the hegemonic character of sustainability makes it difficult to oppose.” However, after applying his theory with his own clients, he has learned that the outcome is desirable. As a practice, he never discusses sustainability as a goal with the people he works with, so that his clients can make affordable and adoptable decisions for the future that reflect their own interests. He has observed that this approach often results in his clients choosing feasible, environmentally conscious designs. 

Arboleda has found that both the definition of sustainability and the notion of community participation are too compromised to be of any value. He explained that while societies need both environmentally conscious urban design and participatory government initiatives, they need to strive for better positionality, with no underlying interests of control by figures of authority that taint the process. Ethnoarchitecture’s bottom-up participation model, he suggests, is ideal to advocate for radical participatory change. Rather than the designer directing the subject, or the designer and subject co-participating, the residents need to design and then consult an agent. Consequently, architects can act as a supporter of the vision as opposed to the driver. “We need to hear rather than speak,” Arboleda said.